Why Gennady Golovkin's place in history is on the line against Canelo Alvarez

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – There is no such thing as a must-win fight for a boxer who will walk away with a paycheck in excess of $40 million for one 12-round fight, as Gennady Golovkin will do Saturday.

That kind of payday will ease the sting of even the harshest defeat.

Golovkin, though, will find himself in a unique position should he lose to Canelo Alvarez when they meet at T-Mobile Arena for the WBA, WBC and linear middleweight championships in a rich pay-per-view bout.

[Yahoo Sports Boxing Podcast: Preview Canelo-GGG II with guest Max Kellerman]

Golovkin’s streak of 20 consecutive successful title defenses, which ties him with Bernard Hopkins for the most in middleweight history, all but guarantees he’s elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. There are lesser fighters with lesser accomplishments already enshrined in Canastota, New York, and so the Alvarez bout is no referendum on his candidacy.

His place in history, though, is far from secure. As talented as he is and as entertaining as he’s been, Golovkin doesn’t have the kind of signature victories on his résumé one would expect of an all-time great middleweight.

The overriding question that all great fighters should be judged upon is a simple one: How many elite opponents in their primes did they defeat?

To date, Golovkin can point to only one victory that would qualify: his 2017 split-decision win over Daniel Jacobs in New York. He is 38-0-1 heading into his blood-feud rematch with Alvarez and doesn’t really have a career-defining victory.

He fought a lot of guys who moved up in weight, as well as good fighters whose best days had long since passed. His five most significant wins as it stands now are the split decision over Jacobs, his eighth-round TKO of David Lemieux in 2015, his 2015 decision over Martin Murray, his 2014 TKO of Daniel Geale, and his 2016 stoppage of Kell Brook.

Gennady Golovkin doesn’t yet have a career-defining win. (AP)
Gennady Golovkin doesn’t yet have a career-defining win. (AP)

It’s not an impressive list, to be frank.

He’s held a version of the middleweight title since 2010, when he knocked out Milton Nunez in less than a minute in Panama City, Panama, to capture the interim WBA title. This era hasn’t been flush with great middleweights, so it’s not as if there were a natural rival for him to fight.

Particularly upon his arrival in the U.S. in 2012, his team made efforts to fight just about any middleweight with a name and a reputation, and it repeatedly failed. The result is that Golovkin was left to defend his belt against no-name fighters who simply weren’t that good or whose best days were behind them.

Despite that he became one of the biggest stars in the sport because of his frightening punching power and personal charisma. He became sort of a modern-day Charley Burley, who fought in the ’30s and ’40s. Burley is arguably the most avoided boxer of all time and didn’t get the opportunity to fight the many elite opponents of his day.

Burley only got his recognition long after his career had ended. The great trainer Eddie Futch often called Burley the best all-around fighter he’d seen. He was finally elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.

Like Burley, Golovkin was unable to get bouts, for whatever reason, with many of his division’s best, including Sergio Martinez, Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams (who didn’t compete much at middleweight) and Felix Sturm.

That leaves him in desperate need of a victory over Alvarez on Saturday to lend legitimacy to the argument that he is one of the finest middleweights ever. It’s going to be an uphill battle for him no matter what, because he’s 36 and even with an impressive win over Alvarez, there isn’t another fight out there that would have the same kind of impact on his legacy.

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The five best middleweights ever – Sugar Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Harry Greb and Stanley Ketchel – are in a class by themselves. It’s hard to imagine a prime Golovkin defeating one of them.

But the next 10 or 15 great middleweights, an argument could be made for Golovkin against at least some of those. Hopkins would have presented a unique challenge, because nobody was ever better at game-planning and making life difficult for the opponent.

It’s hard to imagine Golovkin knocking out a guy like James Toney, who never lost at middleweight, but it is conceivable that he could have outworked Toney enough to win a decision.

That’s a dangerous game to play, though, because it relies a lot on memory and not on what you’re seeing in front of you now. There’s also a tendency to romanticize fighters from the past and downplay those in the current era, and that perspective harms Golovkin.

Most who saw his first bout with Alvarez thought he won it, though there are numerous credible boxing people who believe Alvarez boxed well enough to win. The point is, from a legacy standpoint, Golovkin didn’t do enough, Adalaide Byrd’s ridiculous 10-2 card favoring Alvarez notwithstanding.

A convincing win on Saturday would buttress the argument for Golovkin supporters that he deserves to be regarded as one of history’s finest middleweights.

It’s no pressure, because he’s going to be rich beyond his wildest dreams on Saturday, regardless of how the fight ends.

But to be remembered as more than the star of a weak era, Golovkin needs to defeat Alvarez in a clear and convincing manner. Though Alvarez holds the linear middleweight belt, history will remember him primarily as a super welterweight.

For history’s sake, Golovkin can’t afford a loss like that.

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